Home COVID Tests Go on Sale in Israel, but With Limited Promise

Test kits can return results in as little as 15 minutes, but Israel's coronavirus czar warns they will not replace the standard PCR test

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A few of the COVID-19 antigen rapid test kits for self-testing.
A few of the COVID-19 antigen rapid test kits for self-testing.Credit: REUTERS
Sam Sokol
Sam Sokol

Israelis will be able to purchase rapid COVID-19 antigen tests at pharmacies around the country starting this week, allowing them to check if they have contracted the coronavirus without waiting up to a day for the results of a standard PCR test.

"Rapid tests and home tests are approved for use after they have been validated in Israel, and provided they have an official international approval for sale," a spokesperson of the Ministry of Health told Haaretz.

"At this point the tests will be accessible for use for the benefit of the citizens. The Ministry of Health examines usage patterns based on home tests."

National pharmacy chain Super-Pharm announced Sunday that it would stock the new tests at all of its 260 stores. According to Walla News, a pack of two will cost 76.90 shekels (US $23.57).  Though at first only one brand will be on offer, it will eventually be joined by several others, all of which promise accuracy of 98 percent or more, Walla News reported.

However, while home tests can return results in as little as 15 minutes, they are less sensitive than standard PCR tests, which will still be required for international air travelers. The new diagnostic kits will also not be accepted by indoor venues, such as movie theaters or wedding halls, to which entry for the unvaccinated is contingent on the presentation of a negative test.

Antigen tests can diagnose active infections by detecting the earliest toxic traces of the virus rather than the genetic code of the virus itself. However, they are "generally less sensitive than real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) and other nucleic acid amplification tests,” the American Centers for Disease Control said on its website.

According to the website of InteliSwab, which manufactures one of the test kits that will reportedly go on sale in Israel, its product could report a false negative “if the level of antigen in a sample is below the limit of detection of the test.”

Speaking with reporters last Monday, Health Ministry Director General Nachman Ash stated that Israelis who test positive when using the new home kits will still have to undergo a PCR test “to confirm the diagnosis.”

“The home tests will not replace the existing tests,” he said.

PCR tests look for genetic material of the virus and are considered highly accurate; however, they can take hours and require expensive, specialized equipment mainly found at commercial labs, hospitals or universities. 

Another common testing method is the antibody test, used in Israel as proof of inoculation or a prior recovery. The test looks in the blood for antibodies, the proteins produced by the body days or weeks after fighting an infection. Such tests can also be helpful for researchers to understand how far a disease has spread within a community, but they aren’t useful for diagnosing active infections.

Quick antigen tests are common in Europe and are often administered at restaurants and other public venues.

“I think it can be in addition, but the main foundation should still be the PCR tests,” Nadav Davidovich, director of the School of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University and chair of the Association of Public Health Physicians in Israel, told Haaretz.

Another issue is that by virtue of being used at home, the kits are not traceable, a serious drawback during a pandemic in which keeping track of the virus’ spread is critical.

“In any case, after doing such tests you must do a PCR to confirm. People need to know even if they are negative, especially if they are symptomatic, they still need to be cautious and use masks,” he continued, explaining that “people need to understand the limitations.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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